GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ask Pedro Grifol about his mentors, the folks who put him on the path to managing the Chicago White Sox, and he starts with his grandfather. Pedro Antonio Grifol, who emigrated from Cuba, delivered newspapers in the early mornings and worked all day as a high school janitor in Miami. But his day really began, he would tell young Pedro, when he picked him up from school.
“He taught me discipline, and the work ethic in whatever it is you’re going to do — and the details,” Grifol said. “From the way I put my socks on, the way I tied my shoes, my grandfather was like, ‘No, you put your socks on like this, this is the way it goes.’ I mean, I’m talking about detailed stuff.”
Grifol, 53, spoke this month while watching his team practice before an exhibition game at Camelback Ranch. He had just held a lengthy morning meeting in the White Sox clubhouse, preaching the same lessons as his grandfather: Details matter.
The excitement of reporting to camp had faded, Grifol explained, and the buzz for the start of the season was still a couple of weeks away. This was the time to sharpen focus, he said, not to lose it. Hitting the cutoff man, running the bases well, picking up signs — those must be priorities.
“Sometimes when you have too much talent, you start forgetting the little details of the game,” Elvis Andrus, the veteran infielder, said later. “It’s something that Pedro and all the coaches notice, and they know that for us, as talented as we can be, if we don’t pay attention to little details and fundamentals, that’s when it gets ugly during the season.”
Things got ugly for the White Sox last season — and not the good kind of ugly, the “Winning Ugly” of Tony La Russa’s 1983 division champions. The 2022 White Sox lost eight in a row last April under La Russa, and eight in a row again in September under Miguel Cairo, after a heart issue forced La Russa to leave the team.
Grifol will lead a talented team that had several players miss time with injuries or play far below expectations last year.Credit…Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
After running away with American League Central under La Russa in 2021, the White Sox stumbled to an 81-81 record. When General Manager Rick Hahn interviewed Grifol, then the bench coach for the Kansas City Royals, for the manager’s job, he got a stinging indictment of his team.
The Royals were vastly inferior, at 65-97, but they won 10 of 19 games against Chicago.
“You could tell by the second inning what kind of day we were going to have against you,” Hahn said, describing what Grifol told him in the interview, “whether you guys were all there — present, high-energy, focus — or if this was going to be one of these days that if we kept it quiet, and we didn’t prod the sleeping horse, you guys were just going to coast through this game. And we were going to get you.”
Injuries were partly to blame: Lineup mainstays like Tim Anderson, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert all played fewer than 100 games, and some cornerstone players, like the starter Lucas Giolito and third baseman Yoán Moncada, regressed sharply. With minimal roster changes — José Abreu and Johnny Cueto left via free agency; Andrew Benintendi and Mike Clevinger arrived — this core gets another chance, and they are counting on Grifol to lead.
“Last year was a down year — it was a lost year, in all honesty,” the starter Lance Lynn said. “We’ve got a lot of guys with a lot to prove, and he’s got the ability to push guys where he needs to.”
The Kansas City Royals could not match the White Sox in talent last year, but Grifol, right, said the team was able to go 10-9 against Chicago by calmly sticking to the plan.Credit…Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Grifol showed that skill as a freshman catcher at Florida State in 1989, when he helped the Seminoles reach the College World Series. They returned two years later, and school officials thought so highly of Grifol last year that they offered him the head coaching job.
Other coaches have left major league staffs recently — even during the season — for the life-changing money of a major college program. Grifol stayed with the Royals, sensing that his time would come soon.
“It was security, it was a lot of money, but he didn’t want to look in the mirror and say, ‘I cut myself short,’” said Eduardo Perez, the broadcaster and former major leaguer, who roomed with Grifol at Florida State and remains a close friend. “Managing in the major leagues has been his dream for a long time. He believed in his ability and believed in the process.”
For Grifol, the process began midway through a nine-year minor league playing career in which he hit .226. Realizing he was unlikely to play in the majors, Grifol resolved to manage there. He learned to scout under Roger Jongewaard with the Seattle Mariners, but he never took the uniform off — literally, in some cases.
“I would wear my khaki pants and I’d have my baseball pants underneath, and I would wear a sweater or a jacket and have my Seattle Mariners uniform underneath,” Grifol said. “And then as soon as that high school game was over and everybody would leave, I would keep a player back, take off my khakis and my shirt, and work him out for Roger.”
Grifol has worked to establish himself in Chicago’s sports culture and received an ovation at a Blackhawks game in November.Credit…Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Grifol rose to become farm director for the Mariners, taking managing jobs along the way in the rookie league, in Venezuela and in Class A. Later, as a major league coach for the Royals, he tutored hitters with his boyhood hero, George Brett, and helped mold catcher Salvador Perez into a perennial All-Star.
The breadth of Grifol’s experiences, in and out of baseball, could be especially useful in handling a White Sox roster built around international talent, especially in the lineup.
“He’s from a Cuban background, he managed in Venezuela, he scouted all over Latin America, his wife is Colombian,” Eduardo Perez said. “It’s one thing to be bilingual, but if you don’t understand the different cultures, it doesn’t really matter. He’s able to relate.”
Grifol has discouraged the players from dwelling on season-long goals or the one-day-at-a-time trope. The better mind-set, he believes, is to target specific areas of improvement in concentrated pockets of time.
“He’s not setting insane expectations for the entire year, rather setting expectations for short-term goals and trying to achieve those,” Giolito said. “‘What are we doing over the next five days? Did we get better here? What needs to be improved?’
“Now we can set another five-day stretch and keep things more present, rather than: ‘Oh, we want to win the World Series.’ Well, everybody wants to win the World Series, but you don’t just set that goal. It’s like: How are we going to get there?”
The White Sox have found a way just once in Grifol’s lifetime, winning the World Series in 2005. They swept the Astros that fall, clinching the title at Minute Maid Park in Houston, the very spot where Grifol and his team will begin their journey together on opening day.